Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 8 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Don Couch, Democratic candidate for state House District 11, which includes Kihei, Wailea and Makena. The other Democratic candidate is Tina Wildberger.
1. Hawaii has been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps the biggest impact is to the economy and the tourism industry, which has been Hawaii’s biggest economic driver. Do you think state leaders have handled the response to the virus effectively, including the approach to testing and health care as well as the stay-at-home orders that have caused serious economic harm? What would you have done differently?
I am currently working in the Maui County Mayor’s Office as we are working feverishly to keep our residents safe from this dangerous pandemic. I believe Maui County has done an outstanding job of balancing the needs of people to get back to work with the need for public safety — health-wise. As better testing and tracing are established, we need to open up to get our economy started and back to a healthy and sustainable pace. I am sorely disappointed as to how long it has taken to get people their unemployment relief. As a former IT person who has programmed systems like this back in the 80s, I understand the limitations.
I think the state could have farmed out this function to other states that had more modern systems. At least temporarily so we could get our people paid. The state also needs to make a government-wide assessment of and commitment to necessary infrastructure modernization and upgrades so that something like this never happens again. This problem is not limited to the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, but all of our state departments and agencies.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
I would not put balancing the budget on the backs of the workers in Hawaii. I am not an expert on economic recovery from a severe reduction in revenue. I would listen to expert opinions from all sides of this issue and collaborate with my colleagues to find the best way to come out of this deficit. I would protect the social services that we currently provide and potentially expand some of these services since a larger portion of the population will need these services temporarily.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
First and foremost, the recovery of the economy for the state of Hawaii can be done through smarter acceptance of tourism and diversifying our economy through agriculture and high-tech solutions. In order to attract more high-tech businesses, the state needs to work with the federal government to upgrade and increase the bandwidth of our internet services. Hawaii was once one of the fastest internet infrastructures but has severely lagged behind the ever-increasing technology advances. We would need help from the federal government to get our tech infrastructure up to date or even advance it further.
Concerning agriculture, there is so much potential; however, the state needs to do more to partner with the agriculture industry to drive interest and create a modern workforce equipped to work future farm operations. Like the construction industry, we need agriculture businesses and the university, and the DOE to work together to create apprenticeship programs.
4. Are you satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities? If not, how would you propose to meet pension and health obligations for public workers? Would you support reductions in benefits including in pension contributions for public employees in light of virus-related budget shortfalls?
I well aware of Maui County’s plans and the situation as a whole. I am not aware of the current state plans so I don’t feel qualified to answer this at this time.
5. The state’s virus response effort has exposed deep rifts within the top levels of government, including between the Legislature and Gov. David Ige. He will be in office two more years, so what would you do to ensure public confidence in Hawaii’s government officials and top executives?
Having worked as a county legislator and in the county administration, I have the experience of seeing how government runs from two different branches. I would work with my colleagues to make sure they are aware of what the administration needs to function well. I would make contacts in the administration to make sure communication is maintained between the branches.
6. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. How important do you see this as an issue for Hawaii? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability throughout the state? Do you support police reform efforts such as mandatory disclosure of misconduct records by police agencies and adequate funding for law enforcement oversight boards that have been established in recent years?
I would support the mandatory disclosure of misconduct records that are above a certain level of misconduct. I would think that reprimands for administrative errors are not needed to be disclosed.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I have seen where a citizens initiative has been well-meaning and gets passed but has severe unintended consequences (California’s Proposition 13, for example — I voted for it when I was too young to understand the ramifications). The process would have to be added to the constitution and voted on by all of Hawaii’s voters. I would support having a suitable procedure put on the ballot.
8. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
I understand why the governor did this — because there was no real way to allow for conference calls such as Zoom or Bluejeans (the Maui Council’s service of choice). He did however, make it more sweeping of a suspension than was necessary.
9. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs? How big of a priority is this for you?
Along with technology infrastructure modernization, the state also needs to intensify its climate change planning. I have been working with shoreline issues for the last nine years. We really need to factor in climate change issues in all of our discussions, and it’s an appropriate time to intensify this dialogue as the state is actively seeking a vendor to help with updating the Hawaii 2050 task force recommendations
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
We need to complete the high school and the North/South collector road. That infrastructure will help alleviate the issues brought up when we add more affordable housing in the district.
11. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.
Technology is a major factor in most jobs in Hawaii — as mentioned above, we really need to get our technology infrastructure back on par with the rest of the world — if not look to advance beyond the rest of the US. We would need better connectivity between the islands and with the rest of the world. We would need assistance from multiple sources of funding to accomplish this.